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Maria, a 43-year-old woman from Honduras, has worked on recovery efforts after five different natural disasters in the US. She has done work remodeling, rebuilding, and demolishing homes and buildings damaged by multiple hurricanes, including Hurricane Ian which hit Florida in 2022.
But, as Florida reels from yet another hit in the form of Hurricane Idalia, Maria will not be returning to the state to help with the clean-up.
In the wake of a new anti-immigration law that went into effect in Florida on 1 July, Maria has decided not to join Idalia recovery and rebuilding efforts in case she is targeted by immigration authorities.
“We’re afraid to go. When I left, I was crying very much, it was hard for me because there was work there and I enjoyed it,” added Maria, who does not want her surname used out of fear of the authorities. “Now with this new law, if they catch us, they will deport us, so we’re too afraid to go back.”
The new law was brought in under the hardline rule of the state’s rightwing governor, Ron DeSantis, whose rhetoric on a range of issues has ratcheted up as he runs for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination on a far-right platform.
The law imposes restrictions and penalties aimed at deterring employers from hiring undocumented workers, requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to inquire patients about their immigration status, and requires persons in custody on an immigration detainer to submit a DNA sample.
The bill also requires businesses with over 25 employees to use E-Verify to verify employees’ immigration statuses.
But even a year ago during the Ian recovery effort, Maria, and others like her, felt they were at risk in Florida. She described experiencing harassment from local police over her immigration status while working for several months in Fort Myers.
Maria explained at the time she would sleep nights in her car and during the day wait outside a Home Depot waiting on contractors looking for workers in order to find and get sent out on jobs.
Then police started taking photos of her and others, their cars and threatening them with deportation, and she moved to a nearby Walmart parking lot to sleep in her car at night.
After working one day, she and another worker stopped at a McDonald’s in Fort Myers to get food where a police officer confronted her when she got out of the bathroom, asking for her immigration documents. She was later cleared out of the Walmart parking lot, threatened with deportation if she returned.
“They basically said that if you ever come back here or around here that we will take you and lock you up,” said Maria.
A survey of members conducted by Resilience Force, an advocacy group for workers who respond to climate disasters, said over half its members reported they would not deploy to Florida after Hurricane Idalia due to the new law. That is a particualarly concerning issue given Idalia hit one of Florida’s poorest and least populated regions in the state, with about one in five residents living in poverty.
Initial estimates of damages varied from $8.36bn to about $20bn.
“I’ve never seen the kind of fear that people have had in the last month coming back to Florida. These are a lot of these workers who helped rebuild Florida last year, just last year after Hurricane Ian and then instead of expressing gratitude for it, DeSantis decided to grab headlines by deciding to push this anti-immigrant legislation,” said Saket Soni, director of Resilience Force.
Soni noted the bill that passed was a watered-down version of what DeSantis was initially advocating to pass. “Even the watered-down version represents the most draconian anti-immigrant state law in the country,” Soni said.
Reports have noted Florida has been experiencing an exodus of migrant workers due to the legislation, from its introduction to its recent effect. Those that have remained or traveled to Florida for work say they are living in constant fear of harassment and deportation.
Rogelio – who also does not want his surname used – has worked as a resilience worker since Hurricane Katrina in 2006. He traveled to Florida where he is now working with a group of coworkers in Crystal River, Florida, despite the new anti-immigration legislation because he said he had no choice due to the lack of work where he was living in Texas.
The last time he was in Florida – also in Fort Myers working on Ian recovery efforts – he left the state with his coworkers after a local sheriff in Port Charlotte followed them out of a gas station and pulled them over.
During the stop, Rogelio said the officer asked them if they had drugs, initially told them they couldn’t drive without someone with Florida driver licenses picking them up, but after to speaking to a workers’ wife on the phone who is a US citizen, the officer threatened them to leave or else face arrest and deportation.
“That was a deciding factor to go back to Texas. I have a family, I have children who were born here,” said Rogelio.
Now, working in Crystal River, he said the area is facing a severe worker shortage, with a lack of a labor force available to address the homes and buildings impacted by flooding from Idalia.
“Here in Citrus county, there is a lot of work, but there isn’t a labor force. There are no immigrants here to work. Many of them are afraid just like I was because of this new anti-immigrant law,” he said. “I’m currently living in fear of possibly getting picked up by the police while I’m working. I understand we don’t have a working permit, but I wish there was some way to get that because just as I and my coworkers need jobs, people here need help.
He continued: “A couple days ago, I finished work on a woman’s house who lost everything due to flooding and she couldn’t afford to pay us, but we helped her and basically told us give us whatever you can as a donation, and that’s what we do, oftentimes people don’t have money so in a way we volunteer our work and people pay what they can. We’re here to help.”